As much as we all decry the corrosive role of partisanship in government, it is not so much the people in elected office as it is the system of electing them that produces the partisanship. As much as Wyoming people are fond of claiming they “don’t vote for the party but for the best candidate,” state law requires all candidates for state and county offices run under a partisan label. While a candidate may run as an independent, the “system” makes it difficult and historically very few candidates choosing that label have been elected.
I recall an interview with US Representative Cynthia Lummis, then in her freshman term. She contrasted the intense partisanship of Washington, DC with how little partisanship matters in Wyoming. Perhaps partisanship matters less in Wyoming because it is, in reality, a one-party state. With no Democrats among the states five top elected officials, none in the Congressional delegation since 1978 and only 14 Democrats among 90 state legislators, debates themselves don’t tend to be partisan, but Wyoming elections are!
The requirement that candidates claim a partisan label in order to get on the ballot creates a form of partisanship as destructive to open government than the kind we see in Washington. In a small rural state where people have an opportunity to meet candidates and measure them, the Party label attached to each candidate constrains the process. Otherwise good candidates with much to offer are denied an opportunity to serve because their label isn’t the right partisan label. In many cases, candidates with fewer qualifications are elected because of the partisan appeal of their label. This type of partisanship is why so many seats in the legislature and contests for other offices go unopposed. If you are a Democrat in certain counties or a Republican in a certain few districts, your label alone puts you at a serious disadvantage rendering your qualifications irrelevant. That, my friends, is the worst kind of partisanship.
Arizona is considering reducing the impact of partisanship by opening their closed primaries. Some see allowing people to vote in either Party’s primary as a way if minimizing partisanship. I disagree. It seems to me that only makes for mischief allowing partsans to influence the other Party’s choices.
Why not take political parties out of the equation altogether? What if candidates for state and local office ran without a Party identification? Anyone who runs for office would be listed on the ballot. Instead of a Party label serving as shorthand for projecting what that candidate may stand for, each candidate would have an opportunity and an obligation to make his or her own appeal to the voters. They’d actually have to campaign on their records and on the issues. The purpose of the primary election would be to narrow the number of candidates for each office to two. Those two would vie for election in November after a campaign based on issues and not Party labels.
Partisanship would play no role. Voters could judge candidates accordingly, as individuals and not simply as standard bearers for one political party or another. Labels are a poor way for a democracy to choose its representatives. Labels are deceiving even as they say little about whether a candidate is actually qualified. But labels alone win too many Wyoming elections. Wyoming could set a higher standard by eliminating partisan labels altogether and creating an electoral system where it is ideas and issues that matter the most.